The day the first known case in the Auckland cluster fell sick a doctor warned the Health Minister that closing testing stations would expose ageing GPs to a deadly virus likely undetected because of "pathetically low screening rates".
Covid-19's re-emergence was confirmed 11 days later, on August 11, and Auckland plunged back into level 3 lockdown.
The cluster swelled to 179 people and took three lives, including GP and former Cook Islands PM, Dr Joe Williams, who worked near the Mt Wellington coolstore with infected staff (a genomic link has been established, but officials cannot determine how he contracted the virus.)
Documents obtained under the Official Information Act show health officials, ministers and the Prime Minister were warned about confusing testing messaging, and asked to stop the closure of Auckland community testing stations.
"How can we get testing rates up when your DHBs do this??" a GP - whose name was withheld - emailed Health Minister Chris Hipkins on July 31, the day some sites closed down, including in Ōtara.
"[This] means few will get tested unless GPs do it; nobody has asked us, and it is not a great idea ... exposes large numbers of the ageing GP workforce to the Covid bug, which is rather likely to be present and undetected due to poor quarantine practices and pathetically low screening rates.
"Surely there is now a case for better publicity on TV and mass screening of asymptomatic ... or it will blow up just like Victoria, having been bubbling away quietly undetected till it reaches a critical mass?"
Another community member, whose name was withheld, emailed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the day of closure, and sent similar pleas to Hipkins and Counties Manukau DHB.
"They are relocating it to Wiri - how can our elderly, vulnerable and disabled Pacific people get there - most of them walk to the town centre close to where they live to get all the essentials," they wrote, noting in other emails "most people don't even have a phone, let alone transport".
The documents were released on the eve of Auckland moving to level 1, and raise questions about what was done to guard against the virus the last time the city enjoyed such freedoms.
In Hipkins' first solo press conference as Health Minister on July 7 he made clear community testing levels weren't good enough, and needed to go from about 1100 a day to around 4000.
The next day a GP practice owner wrote to Hipkins, praising the "outstanding" overall Covid response but asking for "ONE consistent message about who can be swabbed and how funding for that will work".
They were "completely floored" by instructions on June 24 that only people with both symptoms and "higher index of suspicion" - such as connection to overseas travel, a border facility or positive case - should be automatically tested.
Others with a cold or flu symptom could still be tested, but it wasn't a requirement. That was welcomed by some doctors, but the GP warned Hipkins it "flew in the face of the message we had been giving which was to test, test, test".
"Our testing rate reduced from about 14 per day to zero ... I suspect DHBs are looking closely at their budgets and are keen to stop spending on testing ... the public have become very laissez-faire about Covid."
Officials later asked anyone with cold or flu symptoms to be tested, but half of GPs reported patients declining to be swabbed.
Dr Jeff Lowe, chairman of GP New Zealand, the representative body for general practice, wrote to Hipkins after the Government's Covid-response unit posted messages wrongly saying all south and west Aucklanders should be tested.
Problems went beyond that, he warned, with official communication often "piecemeal, unclear, inconsistent or not timely".
"Even before the recent cluster emerged in Auckland, GPs have been struggling to deal with the impact of rapidly changing communications to the public around testing.
"Without advance warning ... practices have regularly had to manage a significant influx of patients requesting swabs following the daily press stand-up."
The Ōtara testing centre was reestablished on August 12, the day after the discovery of community transmission. It's still running, with negotiations over its future under way.
Silao Vaisola-Sefo, chief executive of Southseas Healthcare, which runs the centre, said 9800 people were tested from March to July 31. The site was set to close at the end of June, but they got that extended.
"We understand that as government moved from the immediate response into recovery and management of Covid, decisions were taken to ramp testing down, and to look for lower cost solutions.
"Southseas did make a proposal to continue providing our service. Ultimately the DHB decided to proceed with a lower cost/lower intensity operation."
Southseas is part of a Pasifika consortium including Counties Manukau DHB, and has increased home visits, given out food parcels and distributed PPE to 160 churches and community groups.
A spokesperson for the three Auckland DHBs said when Ōtara and others were closed on July 31, the same capacity was maintained with four permanent sites and four mobile testing units. Centres could be reopened if Covid came back.
"Community testing is done at permanent and pop-up community testing centres, GPs, and urgent care clinics. In this particular community and geographical area there is free testing available at a number of GPs and access is available out of hours at urgent care centres."
Hipkins - who yesterday marked the milestone of no active community cases - said DHBs were best placed to decide testing sites. Most people preferred to attend a general practice, and pop-up sites could be reestablished in 24 hours.
"Testing logistics and operations will continue to evolve. Since becoming Minister, I have repeatedly – and publically – driven the health system to maintain surveillance testing rates in the community at levels that can provide confidence we are doing all we can to get a head start should another outbreak occur. We will also continue to keep a surge testing capacity."